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Review Round-up: Connie Fisher is a star re-born in Wonderful Town

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The Royal Exchange Theatre, Hallé Orchestra and Lowry production of Leonard Bernstein's classic musical comedy, Wonderful Town starring Connie Fisher opened at the Lowry Theatre, Salford last week (5 April, previews from 31 March) ahead of a national tour.

Fisher, who came to prominence winning the BBC and Andrew Lloyd Webber's televised search for a Maria and then starred in West End and touring productions of The Sound of Music, is joined in the cast by Lucy van Gasse, Michael Xavier, Haydn Oakley, Joseph Alessi, Michael Matus, Sevaz Stephan, Nic Greenshields, Tiffany Graves, Annette Yeo and Paul Hawkyard.

Fisher's return to the musical stage, which comes just months after the singer withdrew from the 2011 national tour of The Sound of Music because of a vocal condition which had "seriously compromised her singing voice", has been widely praised by critics.

The production, which continues at the Lowry until 21 April 2012, will subsequently tour to Milton Keynes Theatre, Sheffield's Lyceum Theatre, the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, Birmingham Hippodrome, the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, Newcastle's Theatre Royal, New Victoria Theatre, Woking and the Theatre Royal, Plymouth finishing in Cardiff at the Wales Millennium Centre on 7 July 2012.

Rebecca Cohen

"Connie Fisher is back, and as expected, is bringing a something kind of Wonderful to Town ... The ensemble are polished and together, with Tiffany Graves as Helen, Lucy van Gasse and naturally Fisher proving that they are real leading ladies. Michael Xavier as the show's love interest, Bob Baker, is equally charming and engaging to watch. While some of the songs are not particularly breathtaking on their own, they are delivered superbly by the performers, and of course, the incredible Halle Orchestra. What is so prominent about this production is the fact that each and every cast member so obviously believes in what they are doing – their enthusiasm transmitting across into the auditorium. Andrew Wright's choreography is also a breath of fresh air … A collaboration between the Royal Exchange Theatre, the Halle Orchestra and the Lowry - a triple threat indeed, it is certainly worth taking a trip to experience the charm of this Wonderful Town."

Libby Purves
The Times

"This high-spirited touring collaboration… is a whoop-de-doop showcase for three jewels of Greater Manchester ... Connie Fisher displays an unexpectedly brave, rounded gift for character-comedy and a voice now showing a rather pleasing edge of grit … The music is irresistible, a Bernstein burn-up of jazz, jig, ballad, rag and tap. One triumphant number follows another in snappy succession while the choreography (by Andrew Wright) ranges from the louche to the hilarious … The anthem to wasted big-city ambition in a headbanging newspaper office is gorgeous (Michael Xavier a melodious Bob Baker) … A final bouquet for the singing, dancing, exceedingly quick-changing ensemble playing cops, sailors, dancers, editors, citizens and drunks. And for their presumably exhausted wardrobe team."

Connie Fisher and company. Photo credit: Alastair Muir
Dominic Cavendish
Daily Telegraph

"Braham Murray, one of the founding artistic directors of the Royal Exchange company in Manchester, whose swansong production this is... throws everything he's got at the show … A tightly choreographed cast of 24 in colourful period costumes work their socks off in a blaze of skittish-feverish energy ... Maureen Lipman played Ruth in the last West End revival in 1986; here it's Connie Fisher's turn and I have to say that a star is reborn. Gone is the girlish gawkiness of her Sound of Music days, and what Fisher lacks in full-throated vocal power she compensates for with bright-eyed personality … There's terrific support all round – especially from Lucy Van Gasse as Eileen, Michael Xavier as Bob and Nic Greenshields … I'll be damned if I see an odder sight all year than a chorus-line of New York cops performing a mock Irish jig, Riverdance-style. Hats off to the lot of them. Murray can exit with his head held high."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Talent show winner Connie Fisher is back from vocal surgery – less the trilling Miss Perfect of old, now with a deeper voice … If she has lost musical reach and gained a couple of shiny apples for cheek pouches, she has also matured as an actress. You sense the audience willing her on as she shares the duties in Leonard Bernstein's richly scored Wonderful Town … The show really needs an early belter of a ballad. Fisher shines at the self-effacing comedy – "100 Easy Ways To Lose A Man" is an aw-shucks hit, and she has a terrific routine with some sailors. When she is alongside Lucy van Gasse it is hard to be certain which performer is the senior British officer. Wonderful Town is interesting rather than bewitching. But you leave humming the tunes, happy to have good old Connie back on stage."

Michael Billington

"The Halle Orchestra and the Royal Exchange, join forces to present this half-forgotten 1953 show; and the great joy of the evening is hearing a 60-strong band, under Mark Elder's baton … I don't think I've ever heard a musical comedy rendered quite so richly … Wit infuses every aspect of the book, music and lyrics … The show charms and delights in a way that is rare in today's musicals: it is something to do with its mixture of apparent innocence and showbiz expertise, admirably exemplified by Braham Murray's direction, Andrew Wright's choreography and Simon Higlett's design. You could argue that Connie Fisher is a touch too glamorous to convince as the inhibited Ruth, who did her thesis on Walt Whitman – but she sings and dances delightfully. Lucy van Gasse as her sociable sister, Michael Xavier as an admiring editor and Tiffany Graves as a sports scholar's moll also impress. But, in the end, one comes back to the dizzying rapture of hearing the Halle play Bernstein: after the first 16 performances they'll be replaced by a smaller band, so catch them while you can."

David Ward

"The plot isn't up to much: sisters Ruth and Eileen quit Ohio for New York and search for work (and love). Nothing much happens in this Big Apple La Bohème: the girls do things and meet people and sing and dance. Most characters, including a string of men who fancy Eileen, have all the depth of ultra-thin plywood … As Eileen and Ruth, Lucy van Gasse and Connie Fisher (who, after her soprano days as Maria, has become a comfortable alto), blend perfectly in 'Ohio' … Fisher gets all the best tunes … From the first trumpet entry of the overture, you know that the 67 Hallé players (including five saxophonists) are having fun … Elder, with all his experience of opera, is in total command … Grab a ticket while the Hallé is still in residence. And now can I please stop singing 'Why, Oh Why, Oh Why-o, Did I Ever Leave Ohio?'?"


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